The future of construction: Hand-built by robots?
Technological convergence and disruption is driving innovation, and raising new challenges, for industries across the economy. We speak to Suzanne Gill and Helen Garthwaite, partners at Wedlake Bell and co-founders of Tomorrow’s City, Today’s Challenge about the ever developing technological landscape.
According to the World Economic Forum, however, construction and engineering have to date been hesitant to ‘fully embrace the latest technological opportunities’. This has, in many cases, led to productivity stagnation, with McKinsey estimating that if global construction sector productivity achieved its potential it would boost the sector by $1.6trn – adding 2% to the global economy.
Technologies that previously existed only in the realms of science fiction – drones, augmented reality, autonomous equipment, 3D printing, to name but a few – are now mainstream and are beginning to be adopted by construction operators to enhance output and productivity. Perhaps the biggest success story to date in this setting is Building Information Modelling (BIM), with the UK government and Digital Built Britain putting BIM at the forefront of achieving the goals set out in the Construction 2025 strategy: including 33% reduction in the upfront and lifetime costs of built assets, as well as lowering built environment emissions by 50%.
Alongside this, technology is also disrupting the construction method itself. Offsite and modular techniques are promoted as an enabler with construction able to learn the production-line lessons from the manufacturing space. Many in the industry argue that this change is long overdue and indeed essential. Other industries such as automotive have long been at the forefront of production-line manufacturing, while, looking further afield, the maritime and aerospace industries have demonstrated how far remote and robotic construction methods can be pushed.
Meanwhile, a number of international businesses are turning to blockchain technology to track and manage payments and commercial contracts. In an industry with so many moving parts, this technology brings with it the opportunity to increase the efficiency of developments whilst also near eliminating costs associated with procurement fraud and contractual disputes. The creation of ‘smart contracts’ allows information to be shared securely at speed, by way of a continuously reconciled database, ensuring all parties in the blockchain are informed, and providing control to what can be incredibly complex payment structures. Just this year, the Republic of Georgia committed to use the bitcoin blockchain network to authorise property-related government transactions. Other countries are set to follow suit, seeing the potential to revolutionise supply chain management in the property industry and bring together multiple contractors and disparate suppliers across geographies and sectors.
With the pace of technological change rapidly increasing it is little wonder, therefore, that some are predicting worker-free building sites by 2050. Where once we saw hard hats and high vis jackets, there could well be autonomous bulldozers coordinated by drones circling overhead with 3D printers churning out new designs at a pace beyond that of human skill. However, there remain real challenges to make today’s fiction tomorrow’s reality. Not least the threat of cyber attacks, that come with increased digitalisation and the fast-paced adoption of emerging technologies. This year saw 200,000 organisations in 150 countries hit by the ‘WannaCry’ ransomware, with the NHS in the UK being particularly impacted, partly due to its outdated systems and under-investment in cyber security. Real estate business and buildings themselves are similarly under threat, particularly as smart becomes normative.
In an industry that is traditionally risk-averse, it is understandable there has been hesitancy to fully embrace the opportunities new technologies bring. Indeed, blockchain is still classified as an ‘emerging technology’ and take-up has been slow, perhaps partly due to the negative connotations associated with early crypto currencies in addition to privacy concerns around sharing data. Furthermore, such technology requires significant changes to be made to existing systems as well as a complete cultural shift to a decentralised network, requiring the opt-in of all parties – a potential logistical nightmare in itself.
Technology solutions are often trumpeted as improving energy efficiency, sustainability and building lifespan, but in an industry that accounts for three million jobs, equal to 10% of total UK employment, the fear of robots taking over and ‘stealing’ construction jobs is a startling one. However, industry age demographics and the likely impact of Brexit points to a shrinking workforce, providing a compelling case to embrace change. In a survey recently undertaken by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), nearly 80% of respondents believe that AI will have a positive impact on the infrastructure sector, leading to substantial improvements to design and delivery, in turn boosting productivity. Indeed, the future is closer than we think with September seeing construction begin on Europe’s first 3D-printed building. Likewise, the precast ‘Tech Crete’ method used at Victoria Gate, Leeds, has taken BIM to whole new levels of design intricacy, though as stated “the machine to replace human creativity has not yet been invented”.
Legal, financial and insurance organisations have a role to play in enabling modernisation, and traditional procurement and contract structures, as well as debt financing models, will need reviewing. In particular, any increase in off-site construction (for instance) will require the consequential realignment of construction and new approaches to development risk. The support of professional bodies will also be key to direct the refocus of design into early stage manufacturing and to recognise the requirements of an off-site modular approach in the tender process, if delivery cost and productivity benefits are to be maximised.
The Farmer Review has promoted the consideration of the opportunities and challenges for the construction industry in the digital age with the headline call to the industry to “modernise or die”. The pace of technological innovation is rapidly increasing and as a relative latecomer to the digital revolution, the construction and development industry requires proactivity to ensure procedures and policies are in place from the outset. Today’s challenge is not only to keep up but also to think ahead and future-proof the industry for tomorrow’s city.
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